Memories of a Duvalier Massacre, 50 Years Later
Haiti, April 26, 1963: Some will commemorate this date with religious services, conferences, radio forums, film screenings, and testimonials.
Some will commemorate it on social media, on Twitter and Facebook.
Others will choose to commemorate it privately, without uttering a word.
Others will decide not to commemorate at all.
A radio spot declares:
Ann sonje viktim yo.
Ann aprann sa k te pase.
Ann kenbe rasin memwa nou.
Let us remember the victims.
Let us learn what happened.
Let us keep the roots of our memory alive.
Former journalist Michèle Montas still vividly remembers the bullet-ridden bodies lying on the sidewalk near her home on April 26, 1963. She was seventeen years old.
There had been an attempted kidnapping of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier that morning and his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, decided to unleash his wrath, and his henchmen, on the entire city of Port-au-Prince.
The bloodbath began at the home of Montas’s neighbor, Lieutenant François Benoit, an elite marksman who had been dismissed from the army. Benoit’s parents were killed. His house was set on fire, with a seven-month-old baby inside.
“Soldiers and Tonton Macoutes seemed infected with a blood lust and shot anyone who moved or came near the Benoit place,” retired Marine Corps officer Charles T. Williamson, in Haiti to help train Duvalier’s army, wrote in his 1999 memoir, United States Naval Mission to Haiti, 1959-1963. “Throughout the town the word was out that former army officers were to be arrested along with anyone thought to oppose the regime. . . . The hunt was on.”
The hunt was indeed on for Duvalier’s adversaries, army and civilian alike. Roadblocks were set up. Death squads though roamed freely. Grenades and bombs exploded in the daytime and gunfire crackled at night, resulting in what Bernard Diederich, co-author (with Al Burt) of Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes, recently called “a day of mayhem, genocide!”
Montas recalls “the smell of rotting bodies for days, but also the gripping smell of fear. It had become the norm, whole families guilty by bloodline, condemned, executed.”
Hundreds were rounded up or disappeared into the bowels of Fort Dimanche, the notorious dungeon prison where many of Papa Doc’s victims lost their lives.
It was one of the most brutal days of the twenty-nine-year rule of Papa Doc and his son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During their reign, an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 men, women, and children were killed.
Recently, Francois Duvalier’s grandson, Jean Claude’s son, François-Nicolas Duvalier, an adviser to Haiti’s current president Michel Martelly, wrote an opinion piece praising his grandfather’s “republican values” and calling him a “great nationalist.”
This, coming just a few days before the fiftieth anniversary of April 26, 1963, seems to not only be an attempt at whitewashing the past, but at launching an offensive against those who, on this day, will pause to remember.
Fifty years on, the victims of Duvalier père can only evoke these atrocities ceremonially, while a few of those who suffered similarly under his son were recently able to briefly face him in court.
The few--like Montas, who was arrested on Jean Claude Duvalier’s orders, on November 28, 1980—who have been able to file complaints or testify, represent a small percentage of those who were arrested, jailed, tortured, or killed under the younger’s Duvalier regime. Montas joins an even shorter list of high profile victims, whom Baby Doc is able to identify by name.
“But we—the thirty listed in the complaint--are not the only ones,” Montas stresses. “The repression went across all classes, all over the country. Journalists were crushed. Students were crushed. Unions were crushed. Rural people were crushed.”
She recalls the particular case of one of her fellow plaintiffs who was forced to travel from northern Haiti with her husband’s severed head in a bucket during the father’s reign and was only released from Fort Dimanche during the son’s reign, as part of a prisoner exchange with the United States.
“He inherited a repressive machine from his father,” she says, “and continued to use it to stay in power. There should be no statute of limitations for judgment on that. There should be no statute of limitations on the disappeared.”
There should also be no statute of limitations on memory, whose precarious preservation can sometimes become a hazardous task.
On April 26, 1986, a group of the dictatorship’s survivors and their family members and supporters marched to the ruins of Fort Dimanche to remember the dead. Fifteen of them, including some journalists covering the event, were mowed down in hail of bullets by Duvalier loyalists. Those dead, too, will be remembered on this now-layered anniversary.
“Shortly after Baby Doc Duvalier was propelled to power as President for life, I was arrested, as were thousands before and after me,” Patrick Lemoine writes in his heart-wrenching memoir, Fort Dimanche, Dungeon of Death, an excruciating account of his six years in captivity.
“While in prison,” he recalls, “I witnessed the annihilation of a generation, a silent genocide known only to the few who survived. I solemnly vowed to keep alive the memory of my departed cellmates.” His goal, he said, was to prevent “this dark chapter in history from repeating itself.”
Michèle Montas feels the same urgency in commemorating April 26 this year.
“Marking the 50th anniversary of one of the bloodiest and senseless days of the Duvalier dictatorship,” she says, “will be for so many of us, a day of collective catharsis. While the young have never been told, while so many older Haitians have chosen to forget, while some politicians are now attempting to rewrite history, and while the charges against Jean Claude Duvalier are still pending, I hope that the voices of those saying ‘never again’ will this time be heard.”
Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and currently lives in Miami. Her next novel, Claire of the Sea Light, will be published in August 2013.
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